Town Mulling Over How to Handle Airbnb, Other Short-Term Rentals in Watertown

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A screenshot from a short-term rental site showing a map of properties available to rent in Watertown.

The Town of Watertown does not allow short-term rentals, such as can be found on Airbnb or one of several other similar websites, but when you look up Watertown those websites dozens or even hundreds of potential rentals pop up on the map. 

Watertown officials are trying to figure out how to handle such rentals and, whether they are banned or allowed with certain conditions, the policy will need to be enforced. Wednesday night, the Department of Community Development and Planning held the first community forum to start diving into the complex issue.

Town Council President Mark Sideris said that he believes the status quo is not working.

“We have an issue we need to address and we can’t say we don’t want to do anything. It is going on now,” Sideris said.

Exactly how many properties in Watertown are listing on Airbnb and other sites is not clear. Some searched and found 25, 40, 50, 100 or even 200.

Assistant Town Manager and Director of Community Development and Planning Magoon said that Airbnb and some other short-term rental companies have said they would help communities regulate these units. Resident David Stokes said if they want to help regulate the industry, they could provide Town officials with the exact number and locations of the short-term rentals.

Whatever is decided – a ban or regulations – enforcing the rules will cost the town money, Sideris said. Councilor Angeline Kounelis said the Town’s Zoning Enforcement staff of two cannot enforce all the regulations on the books as it is, and this could greatly increase their work load.

Resident Russ Arico said he does not want to see people running short-term rentals in residential neighborhoods for a number of reasons, including because neighbors won’t know who the people who are renting them. He suggests that if the town has a large fine for running an Airbnb, and enforces it, people will stop running them.

Lydia Seif said she has seen short-term rentals in her neighborhood and she would like to see a limit on the number of these rentals in town, and how many in each area.

“Otherwise whole streets can go (short-term rental),” Seif said.

Seif added that before an ordinance is created, she would like to have the town keep a list of where the short-term rentals are located. Magoon said that would be hard because there is no form or process right now.

Resident Elodia Thomas said she has heard that neighborhoods in New Orleans have been “destroyed” by speculators buying up properties to use as short-term rentals. She also worries about the loss of affordable housing.

“We are talking about what we should do about affordable housing in our community out of one side of our mouth, and yet we have a hundred Airbnbs operating at all different level,” Thomas said.

Melissa SantucciRozzi, the chair of the Zoning Board of Appeals, said that she believes some properties or units do not lend themselves to being a short-term rental, such as half of a two-family home.

Pros, Cons and More

While many at the meeting said they oppose having Airbnb’s, almost all had stayed at one in other areas of the country or the world. Councilor Vincent Piccirilli noted that while New York City and San Diego prohibit short-term rentals, he has stayed in such places in both cities recently.

Magoon said that having short-term rentals available locally could help residents who don’t have room for family or other visitors to stay and want an option that is less costly than hotels. He added that they are used by people in the area for extended time for business, to visit children who attend college in the area or because loved ones are being treated at hospitals in the region. Short-term rentals also provide income for property owners, Magoon said.

Renting properties on these sites can be lucrative, said David Fagan, who had been renting his property in Watertown on Airbnb until the town told him to stop.

“All said, after fees and costs, I got double what I would have gotten renting it long term,” said Fagan, who said he could charge $180-$220 a night for a two-bedroom unit in the high-season.

While many people listing on Airbnb are individual homeowners wanting to rent a room or their home while they are away, others are renting out their second home or, in some instances, companies buy up entire apartment buildings and rent out all the units on a short-term basis.

Opponents also point to the fact that having housing rented on the short term reduces the rental stock in the area and also limits affordable housing, Magoon said.

There are also concerns about the lack of regulation on the places being rented, including lack of smoke alarms or turning basements without windows into rentals, Magoon said.

Types of Regulations

Watertown first started dealing with Airbnbs within the last year when Town officials received complaints about short-term rentals in town, Magoon said.

Since they are not allowed under the Town’s Zoning Ordinance, the Town’s Planning Staff tried to enforce it using what they believed was the closest regulation to what was going on: an accessory use of a dwelling unit that is owner occupied, planning for use as lodging of not more than two rooms of lodging, without separate kitchen facilities for not more than two lodgers.

“Maybe that specific situation fits some of those, but obviously does not fit the breadth of issues facing the (short-term rental) industry,” Magoon said.

Letters were sent to the people renting their property in the short term telling them to stop because they were violating the town’s Zoning Ordinance. One person appealed saying that the town should not be regulating how they use their property, but the Zoning Board of Appeals ruled against them saying that it should be regulated, Magoon said.

A second person tried to comply under the provisions of the regulation, Magoon said, but that was a non-starter, too.

“The Planning Board said that really doesn’t fit. We don’t have anything in the Zoning Ordinance for this complicated and broad issue,” Magoon said.

The Planning Board asked the Planning Department staff to create a regulation for short-term rentals, Magoon said.

Communities surrounding Watertown are also looking at the issue, including  Boston, Belmont, Cambridge and Newton. Boston is looking at limiting the number of days a property can be rented in the as short-term to 90 days, but Magoon noted that some of the businesses that own whole buildings said it would still be financially beneficial to rent it for that time and then leave the units empty the rest of the time.

The State Legislature is also tackling the issue. Magoon said that one such proposal, House Bill 3454, would have a separate situation for owner-occupied situations where properties are rented only a small number of days vs. non-owner occupied where a unit is rented for many days.

The bill would also allow communities to charge an excise tax (with half the tax required to go toward affordable housing), and would give communities the ability to restrict the number of short-term rentals in town or the number of days that a unit is rented. Other requirements would be annual safety inspections of the units and require owners to have insurance.

Magoon said there are other issues to consider, such as where short-term rentals will be allowed, considerations for parking, developing a registration or permitting process and making sure that units meet the fire and housing codes. Also, if a renter provides breakfast or other meals, the Town’s Health Department will have to get involved, Magoon said.

The Planning Department staff will be coming up with a draft regulation, Magoon said, and they will hold another public meeting to discuss the proposal. A change in the Zoning Ordinance would need the approval of both the Planning Board and the Town Council.

15 thoughts on “Town Mulling Over How to Handle Airbnb, Other Short-Term Rentals in Watertown

  1. Is a short-term rental the modern version of a boarding house/rooming house, without the communal dinner? If so, are there regulations on the books for rooming houses that might apply?

  2. Airbnb is out of control in Watertown. Magoon is a fool if he thinks Airbnb will manage this unwieldy beast consistently and successfully. What the town needs to do is have some kind of registration process for all property owners to report how they are utilizing their properties. And, the town has to figure out the parameters on what is acceptable and unacceptable. Currently, I do not believe that anything exists and the two town employees assigned to inspect rentals are operating on a reactive basis, in other words, if someone complains, they check it out. Owners who violate the rules would be fined steeply and without mercy.

  3. I think with regulations, it would be great to have short term rentals. For those former residents of Watertown who want to come and spend some time in their town, whom so many miss, it would facilitate coming and spending some time there. Perhaps a minimum stay regulation could be put in place, say 1 month minimum stay. Relocating back to Watertown area is impossible, but what would be delightful is to come and spend some time there, particularly for those full or partially retired.

  4. Curious, if people are putting to use space that is going under utilized how is that a bad thing?
    If residents are renting out space in there house to a visitor for a day a week or a month why is that a concern?
    If it’s a business then all business should file at the town hall as is already done.
    The only ones who can be adversely effected are the motels and hotels and they charge plenty for there services.
    I say let home owners provide there extra space and in doing so it should actually lower the cost of housing as more space is available than would have been otherwise.

  5. The issue is that in other cities where there is demand for short term housing owners can earn much more from short term rental than long term rental. The result is that apartments and buildings are turned over to short term rental and there are fewer living spaces for people living and working locally.
    Shep Ferguson

  6. I don’t understand what the issue is? Is airbnb directly affecting residents of Watertown in a negative way? If so, how? Sounds to may like it may be a way for some of our neighbors to make a little extra money. Why would you want to deny them that opportunity?

    I think offering people an alternative to pricey hotels in the area is a win for residents with visiting family and friends. There are very few affordable options for people relocating to the area who need a place for a few weeks or months. airbnb is a much needed resource for future residents to get a foothold in the area. I see many airbnb locations in my neighborhood, but I haven’t noticed any negative impact, no extra foot traffic or shortage of parking and no lurking strangers.

    I applaud and appreciate the efforts of Watertown officials for remaining open minded and trying to find a fair way to make airbnbs in Watertown work for residents, visiting guests and the people providing the space. I look forward to more conversations on the topic in an effort to find a solution that works for everyone.

    • Short term rentals destabilize neighborhoods and undermine affordable housing. Watertown would be right to regulate such uses as airbnb. It is one thing for a resident to rent a room on airbnb, or to rent your apartment while you are away, and quite another thing for an absentee landlord to purpose entire buildings to short term rentals.

  7. Most of the housing stock in Watertown was built before 1950. The housing lots are very small and have limited space for off street parking of automobiles. People did not own 2 to 4 cars per household as they do today. The streets of Watertown are choked with parked cars for most of the year because the town does not enforce its parking laws except during the winter months. Add in room rentals to the mix and there is simply not enough real estate to accommodate more automobiles in the neighborhoods. People park cars on front laws and sidewalks all over town as it is. I don’t know how adding more of this improves the quality of life for the people who live here every day. It can really ruin your day when you want to get to work in the morning and there is a car blocking your driveway. It happens all the time in my neighborhood. Emergency vehicles have to be able to move through quickly and freely through the neighborhoods at all times.

  8. The best thing to do with these rentals is to continue not
    allowing them.
    The very idea that we would let Airbnb regulate themselves is foolhardy.
    Density will be the thing that will sink our wonderful town.
    It is happening all over as we speak.
    During the last campaign, Anthony Donato suggested slowing
    development down, a great idea!
    Most of these reasons given why we should allow Airbnb are not good ones.
    I remember way back when they said accessory apartments would allow
    the little old lady in a big house help having company and pay expenses.
    Instead we had a proliferation of basements and attics being
    used tenants without proper entrances and exits, with front yards paved
    over to accommodate all the tenants.
    What about these units reducing the inventory of available units.
    I hope all the proponents of affordable housing will oppose this.
    It will have a negative affect on our neighborhoods and destabilize them.
    Why would we ever want to allow these.
    Theory and practice!!!
    Things are promoted as being so good for us, but the results are not.
    That is what will happen here, we will loose control of our housing.
    Lets think about how they will affect our town and not worry about people making money off them.
    Thanks,
    John

    • What if the airbnb is just a room in an owner occupied home that meets all safety codes? What if the host provides off street parking? What if that space is only used for rentals longer than two weeks? That’s not taking apartments off the market. However, it is providing a place for newcomers to town to land. It’s also providing a space for visiting doctors, nurses and professors to stay while they complete a hospital rotation or a course at one of the many local colleges. It allows the relatives of neighbors a place to stay when they come to meet their new grand baby for the first time. It brings revenue to local businesses in town. Most importantly, it’s helping this old lady, one of your neighbors, afford to stay in her home despite rising taxes and utility expenses.

  9. Laura, According to our zoning code you could have two lodgers by special permit. The zoning code does not delineate the length of time but I would guess that it has to be longer than a few days or a week. You can call Community Development and Planning for further information at 617-972-6417. Hope that helps.

    SECTION 2.44 LODGER
    A person who rents space for living or sleeping purposes without separate cooking facilities.

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